Starry, Starry Nigh

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By Hilary Prendini Toffoli

I was not much of a skywatcher when we first came to live in the West Coast village of Darling. So I was surprised when a neighbour complained that our garden light was spoiling his stargazing sessions. Things have changed since then. I don’t have a telescope on the stoep, but like him I’ve become intrigued by what lies out there, twinkling away in deep dark space. And I’ve discovered that not only does the southern hemisphere share some of the brightest stars and constellations of the night sky but it also has sights denied the north: the two dwarf galaxies, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, for example, and some stunning globular clusters. Not to mention the closest star to our Sun, Alpha Centauri.

Sutherland is the hot spot of course. Famously freezing in winter, its dry Karoo climate produces cloud-free nights for 80 per cent of the year, attracting tourists from around the world to its rock-star telescope. The village’s wide range of accommodation includes the beautiful old Victorian B&B Skitterland (www.skitterland.co.za) and Sutherland’s only caravan and camping park, Kambrokind, owned by Jurg Wagener, a friendly star struck farmer whose two-hour stargazing show is so popular it’s essential to book (www.sutherlandinfo.co.za ).

About 70 kilometres away is the vast and dauntingly rugged Tankwa Karoo National Park. No electricity, no stargazing guides, but attractive self-catering bungalows in the wilderness and fabulous night skies on which to train your binoculars (www.sanparks.org).

Also off the grid is the Stargazing Hammock Camp at Mashovhela Lodge. It’s in the Limpopo Province’s Morning Sun Nature Reserve in a glorious valley of the Soutpansberg. You leave the lodge after dinner with a guide, a head torch and a backpack with your hammock and sleeping bag, and head for the camp a few minutes away beside a small waterfall. After a telescope session with Venda astronomer Abel Maano (who blends mythology with astronomy) you sleep under the stars protected by insect nets (www.morningsun.co.za).

Equally special is the sky watching at the southern tip of Africa in the World Heritage wetlands of De Hoop, near Cape Agulhas. Think charming thatched cottages and dazzling night viewing, courtesy of a trained team of delightful guides with names like Dalfrenzo, Pinkey and Esmerelda, who described the recent sighting of a dramatic meteor shower “like watching a battle in space” (www.dehoopcollection.com ).

Then there’s five-star luxury at Ulusaba  in the Kruger Park, where Richard Branson has built a small bush observatory on a rocky outcrop. His field guides are trained to use a high performance telescope, the Meade LX200-ACF, and in winter the astronomical gems they focus on include the spectacular Jewel Box with its pale blue and orange stars, the hat-shaped Sombrero Galaxy, the three stars of Orion’s Belt, and below it the gorgeously glowing gas cloud that is the Great Orion Nebula (www.ulusaba.virgin.com).

Intriguing details emerge when the resident astronomer at  Maropeng visitors’ centre in the Cradle of Humankind, Vincent Nettmann, takes you on a journey through space and time. They include the fact that stargazing in the southern hemisphere is more rewarding than in the north because not only have the north’s numerous cities created huge light pollution, but the south also happens to have two-thirds more stars than the north. That’s just the way it is, says Nettmann. He takes you on laser-guided sky tours and shows you how to examine space through a range of large aperture telescopes. Monthly on Saturdays, including a three-course dinner at the Maropeng Hotel, it is located at the world’s richest fossil hominid site about 50km northwest of Johannesburg (www.maropeng.co.za).

With crisp clear nights and minimum light pollution, the Cederberg in the Western Cape is another great place for stargazing. In May the trained guides at Bushmans Kloof are expecting to see one of the largest meteor showers in the Southern Hemisphere, the Eta Aquarids, which occur each year as a result of Earth passing through dust released by Halley’s Comet. Early this winter the Earth and Saturn will be at their closest, and Saturn’s face will be illuminated by the Sun, a great opportunity to view its rings and moons. Guides at this five-star reserve take you on a short after-dinner drive to a location away from ambient light where, along with your warm mug of Amarula hot chocolate, you get spectacular telescope views of the Milky Way and the southern night sky (www.bushmanskloof.co.za ).

If you’re an amateur stargazer and can’t make it to one of these lodge with a star fundi to guide you, you need the star maps of Wayne Mitchell’s book Deep Space Atlas. Written for the southern hemisphere, it includes a section for people who need help. Sky tours give step-by-step instructions on how to begin your tour of the heavens. The atlas is smallish and handy to carry, with white print on black, perfect for nighttime reading with a red light torch. R399. www.deepspaceatlas.com.  

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Star Gazing History
Comets were being documented in South Africa hundreds of years ago, not only by Bushmen rock painters but also by Jan van Riebeeck, who eight months after he landed at the Cape saw something he described as “a strange star with a tail: the tail extending northwards on to the knee of the giant”—by which he meant Orion. It was Halley’s Comet. 30 years later Simon van der Stel also recorded seeing a comet.

In 1685 South Africa’s first observatory was set up temporarily by a French Jesuit who happened to stop at the Cape on his way to Thailand. Another priest, Abbé de Lacaille, sent to the Cape in l751 by the Académie Royale des Sciences de France, laid the foundations of astronomy in the southern hemisphere by cataloguing the locations of 9 766 stars and 42 nebulae with great precision.

The southern hemisphere got its first permanent eye on the stars in 1820 when the Royal Observatory was established in the Cape Town suburb to which it gave its name, Observatory.

As the region’s clear skies became known internationally, South Africa became a hot spot for global astronomy, culminating in astronomers from several countries combining forces this century to build the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the largest in the world.

Situated high on a desert ridge near the remote village of Sutherland in the Northern Cape, SALT has been in full swing since September 2011. With its giant mirror gathering 20 times more light than the largest existing African telescopes, SALT is described by Heather Dugmore in her article Journey to the Edge of Time as “so powerful you can see a candle flame on the Moon”.

Meanwhile, about 100 kilometres south at Matjiesfontein in the Karoo, South African scientists are working on another cutting-edge cosmic project, a lunar laser ranging operation to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon.

Wannabe Martians
“I’m prepared to sacrifice a lot for this idea, this adventure, this achievement—even not returning to Earth,” says Adriana Marais, a 31-year-old quantum physicist who’s one of the five South Africans—three men and two women—who’ve made it to round three of the Mars One space programme. Selected from an initial 202 596 applicants, they’re in the top 100 who want a one-way trip to the Red Planet. “We South Africans are pioneers. Ons maak ’n plan,” says Adriana. “There is an extraordinary once-off opportunity here, and I’m curious.”